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Essay tests are useful for teachers when they want students to select, organize, analyze, synthesize, and/or evaluate information. In other words, they rely on the upper levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. There are two types of essay questions: restricted and extended response.
- Restricted Response - These essay questions limit what the student will discuss in the essay based on the wording of the question. For example, "State the main differences between John Adams' and Thomas Jefferson's beliefs about federalism," is a restricted response. What the student is to write about has been expressed to them within the question.
- Extended Response - These allow students to select what they wish to include in order to answer the question. For example, "In Of Mice and Men, was George's killing of Lennie justified? Explain your answer." The student is given the overall topic, but they are free to use their own judgment and integrate outside information to help support their opinion.
Student Skills Required for Essay Tests
Before expecting students to perform well on either type of essay question, we must make sure that they have the required skills to excel. Following are four skills that students should have learned and practiced before taking essay exams:
- The ability to select appropriate material from the information learned in order to best answer the question.
- The ability to organize that material in an effective manner.
- The ability to show how ideas relate and interact in a specific context.
- The ability to write effectively in both sentences and paragraphs.
Constructing an Effective Essay Question
Following are a few tips to help in the construction of effective essay questions:
- Begin with the lesson objectives in mind. Make sure to know what you wish the student to show by answering the essay question.
- Decide if your goal requires a restricted or extended response. In general, if you wish to see if the student can synthesize and organize the information that they learned, then restricted response is the way to go. However, if you wish them to judge or evaluate something using the information taught during class, then you will want to use the extended response.
- If you are including more than one essay, be cognizant of time constraints. You do not want to punish students because they ran out of time on the test.
- Write the question in a novel or interesting manner to help motivate the student.
- State the number of points that the essay is worth. You can also provide them with a time guideline to help them as they work through the exam.
- If your essay item is part of a larger objective test, make sure that it is the last item on the exam.
Scoring the Essay Item
One of the downfalls of essay tests is that they lack in reliability. Even when teachers grade essays with a well-constructed rubric, subjective decisions are made. Therefore, it is important to try and be as reliable as possible when scoring your essay items. Here are a few tips to help improve reliability in grading:
- Determine whether you will use a holistic or analytic scoring system before you write your rubric. With the holistic grading system, you evaluate the answer as a whole, rating papers against each other. With the analytic system, you list specific pieces of information and award points for their inclusion.
- Prepare the essay rubric in advance. Determine what you are looking for and how many points you will be assigning for each aspect of the question.
- Avoid looking at names. Some teachers have students put numbers on their essays to try and help with this.
- Score one item at a time. This helps ensure that you use the same thinking and standards for all students.
- Avoid interruptions when scoring a specific question. Again, consistency will be increased if you grade the same item on all the papers in one sitting.
- If an important decision like an award or scholarship is based on the score for the essay, obtain two or more independent readers.
- Beware of negative influences that can affect essay scoring. These include handwriting and writing style bias, the length of the response, and the inclusion of irrelevant material.
- Review papers that are on the borderline a second time before assigning a final grade.